Tomorrowland is going to annoy the hell out of a lot of kids and parents alike, ready for director Brad Bird and Disney to whisk them away to a new and magical realm. What they’ll be whisked away to is less an adventure in the vein of Pirates of the Caribbean, their most successful theme park ride-to-film transition, than a lengthy lecture on the sad state of our modern flights of imagination. Seriously. It’s a remarkably bold maneuver for a family movie, and at points Bird imparts his lessons from such a clearly impassioned place that it’s hard to deny him the floor. But for a film about the importance of innovation and imagination, Tomorrowland ultimately reveals itself as a rather bleak affair.
Whatever comes next, the film at least starts with the appropriate doses of whimsy. For the extremely Spielbergian Casey (Britt Robertson), the stars are far more interesting than anything on Earth. As a preternaturally intelligent young girl, she learned every constellation in the sky, gazing upward as often as possible. As a teenager, she’s every bit as relentless in her idealism, but a little more brazen about it as well; when the story catches her in her rebellious teens, she’s using a drone to subtly stall the demolition of a NASA launch site, a demolition that’d put her struggling single father (Tim McGraw) out of a job.
Eventually Casey’s caught and arrested, and when she’s gathering her belongings, a strange retro pin appears in the pile. When she touches it, she’s whisked away to a different, picturesque place. She can’t stay for long, and the boundaries of her actual physical world restrict her in the other one. (The film only dances around how bad these pins could be if distributed without certain protections on order; it’s likelier than not that at least once recipient would run a car off the road or something. But I digress.) This pin ends up connecting her to Athena (Raffey Cassidy), an unflappable teenager, and to Frank Walker (George Clooney), who’s also been to the parallel world and who returned with a lot of bitterness for his troubles.
Tomorrowland struggles early and often for two reasons, one playing into the other. The one is that Bird’s approach to pacing is unusually chaotic for a director usually attuned to the finer points of orchestrating fast-moving, large-scale action. A framing device and a concurrent, lengthy flashback open the film, jumping through so many hoops to pair Casey and Frank together that the film takes quite a while to really get anything going. The other is that the film’s eventual progression of story is such a gambit that once its big turn occurs, a lot of what happens before ends up being negated.
We’ll come back to that in a moment, though. As praise goes, Tomorrowland has moments of retro-tinged visual splendor that suggest a more technically advanced version of some of Joe Johnston’s films, particularly The Rocketeer, that eternally underappreciated Disney effort. While rooted in the Disney theme park milieu to a distracting degree at times (one entrance to Tomorrowland is inside “It’s a Small World,” for example), Tomorrowland is so utterly committed to ol’ Uncle Walt’s senses of human endeavor and wonder that it becomes a poignant bit of nostalgia, a family-friendlier version of Interstellar’s argument that we no longer dream of much more than survival in the face of escalating circumstances. Even if it’s more than a bit hypocritical coming from a company that’s currently recycling all of its beloved animated properties for guaranteed live-action money, Bird being at the helm goes a long way toward reconciling that issue. Not all sentiment has to be cloying, and Bird makes it as sincere as it can possibly be.
There’s also a lovely rapport between Clooney and Robertson that keeps the film going through its increasingly inexplicable, tension-light paces. (That tension problem is exacerbated by the film’s framing device, which eliminates a lot of it.) Robertson is the perfect proxy for a story about innovation, because she pulls off the frequently tricky balance of being an energetic young ingénue without it turning obnoxious. The breathy merriment with which she greets anything vaguely resembling an adventure is infectious after a while, especially with a slightly muted but appropriately weary Clooney as her foil. Where she’s optimism in the face of harsh circumstance, he’s the recluse who sees where the world’s headed and has given up. As core ethos go, “never give up” is corny to be sure, but it’s a message in which Tomorrowland truly seems to believe.
However, it also seems to be convinced that we’re all screwed if we don’t innovate more things, so Tomorrowland is also paradoxical in that respect. The bait-and-switch turns the story eventually takes, as mentioned, mark a dramatic tonal shift, one that suddenly turns a magical if uneven summertime adventure flick into your grandparent, the ornery one who wants you to know how bad and scary everything you like nowadays is. These ideas come from Tomorrowland’s governor, Nix (Hugh Laurie), a man with murky ties to Athena who paints a very different picture of the world of tomorrow than the one Casey fantasizes about, or even the one Frank’s worst fears could imagine.
At one point, Tomorrowland up and halts for an extended sermon on the nihilism of popular culture at present, a place where dystopia holds sway and childrens’ imaginations are so often dictated by fear. While these are very real problems, it’s a strange note to strike, and from then on Tomorrowland has a hell of a time trying to reconcile with what came before. The call ends up being not only for innovation, but for the imaginations of the future, for the right to have dreams and be optimistic when so much darkness pervades through the world. That the film doesn’t really seem to have any suggestions for this conundrum beyond “less technology, more being outside” feels at once honest in its exasperation and like just a little bit of a copout, particularly when so much of Tomorrowland also wants you to marvel at its own technological advances at length. It calls for a new world, but it’s also in the business of selling you a specific one.